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by Chris Catania

2 Sep 2008

Over the last 20 years Blues Traveler has gone from underground jam-band stalwarts to mainstream multi-platinum success including a Grammy for 1994’s single “Run Around”. In that two decade span, they’ve also founded a festival (H.O.A.R.D.), weathered the death of a band mate and battled other personal issues while still continuing to release music and tour. 

And in 2008 the New Jersey quintet is on a new label (Verve Forecast) and has recorded their latest album in a different way than previous albums. This time the plan on their ninth studio album North Hollywood Shootout released August 26th was to capture what rose the band up from the East Coast underground jam-band scene back when guitarist Chan Kinchla and John Topper (vocals/harmonica) founded the group in 1991. As the title suggests, the effort to harness Blues Traveler’s live ferocious mixing of improvosational blues, rock and singer-songwriter swagger was a new kind of challenge that forced the band to adapt a songwriting style they hadn’t explored before.
 
An hour before their Lollapalooza set on August 3rd, I had a brief chat with Chan Kinchla who took me on a tour through the new album, as he explained the difficulties of working with the new recording and touring approach, what it was like having Bruce Willis contribute and how it feels to play Lollapalooza 2008 as one of the few jammier bands on the bill.

We sat down at a table in the artist lounge backstage with the Chicago skyline as our backdrop as Chan took a swig from his drink, told me that he was excited, smiled a big hearty grin and unexpectedly offered up the interview’s first question jokingly asking who had been my most annoying interview so far over the festival weekend.

I dodged the question for obvious reasons. Kinchla smiled again and confidently assured me that I “hadn’t seen nothing yet.”

Luckily, he didn’t keep up his promise. And our chat was far from annoying.

How does North Hollywood Shootout capture the live show more than previous albums?
Well, with North Hollywood Shootout we wanted to try something different since last couple of records we kind of got in this singer songwriter mentality where we really worked on arrangements, trying to get the songs in a very tight form and then go in the studio and record them like that.

Then we realized that when we play live there’s so many things we sort of stumble on that we weren’t really getting on to our albums. So we decided to switch it up and try to do a lot more jamming which we did in the beginning of the record. Just playing, having some drinks and getting these cool little grooves going. Basically, we kept the parts that we liked, and sometimes we would take that part and make it the foundation for the a song or stretch it out and groove longer on it.

It took a lot of listening back for a long time and [producer] Dave Bianco (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Ozzy Osbourne, Mick Jagger and Teenage Fanclub) helped us find what was really good.  We ended up having a lot more grooving on an album that we’ve ever had before and the recording process was really different for us, too.

How hard was it trying to capture that live element?
In the past we had really tried to separate playing live from recording in the studio. When you’re playing live you’re improvising, there’s people there in front of you and so much is going on onstage and in the crowd and new things happen every night. When you recording in the studio you’re going for a more precise goal, trying to get things exactly the way you want them. I think we were really trying to wed those two ideas together and I think we did a really good job and I’m looking forward to doing the same thing on the next record.  We had a lot of fun recording like this album because songs would come out of thin air and we could play in a stream of conscience. The technology we have today also allows us to record like this. You couldn’t really do this in the past.

What’s most exciting for you guys about the new album and playing live this summer?
Since we’ve recorded it with a live focus all the songs are really playing great live and the crowds are loving them. People are getting up and cheering for new songs they’ve never even heard before. That’s really exciting because sometimes when you make a record, release it and then six months down the road there’s only like one or two songs that make it into the live set rotation. With this album we already have six or seven. I can’t wait until people have the album and they actually recognize them.

What are some of your favorites so far?
I’ve really been enjoying “How I Remember It”, and the first single “You, Me and Everything” and (pauses) “Beacons”. Sorry about that, I’m having a hard time remember the names of the songs because we always call them something stupid in the studio when we’re recoding them.

You have Bruce Willis on the album doing a spoken word blues rant on the last track “Free Willis”. How’d that come together?
Bruce has been a friend of ours for a long time and he sat in with us. John Topper and [Bruce] are good friends.  They’re were hanging out and joking around and came up with this idea.  That song is a live blues jam. We just played for 20 minutes and then Dave took all the best pieces and college them all together. Then Bruce came down, smoked a lot of pot, and then free-formed over the our jams. It was a fun experiment to try something a little different.

Is Bruce going to be a part of the live show?
Hey, if Bruce ever shows up, you bet your ass we’ll do it!

You guys have had some lineup changes over the years. How has it been working with those changes?
Well, since Bobby died we’ve had Tad in the band, my brother for eight years and the first five years of that was really learning how to build the band back up again and how to stay out of the way. We really feel we’re hitting our stride with this lineup. We’re able to relax and just play. It’s a lot of fun.

This is your second time playing Lollapalooza since you played in 2006.
Festivals are just a total crap shoot. You don’t have any sound check. You don’t know how you line up is going to play with the crowd, so you have to just throw your hands up and see what happens. It’s kind of nerve racking because you don’t have control over your own show. The most important thing is just to go up there and have fun, because the reality is that something will go wrong. You have to just roll with the punches. 

We love playing in Chicago because we have a lot of fans here and I’m really looking forward to playing. Lolla has an alternative slant and the line-up especially. We’re one of the only jammier bands, which might actually work for us because it’ll be something different for the fans.  There are probably a lot of alterny kids out there who have never heard us so it should be fun. We’ll be sure to bring the rock for them.

Now that was a promise that Kinchla and Blues Traveler kept as they fired rapid fire shots from Shootout while slipping in a few crowd favorites and multiplatinum hits.

by L.B. Jeffries

1 Sep 2008

Level 70. Xbox Achievements. Leaderboards. These are common terms in the gamer lexicon and for many they signify something far greater than their digital existence. They have value. Something that exists in no other place but the virtual world has significance and meaning in the real one. Ray Kurzweil, a noted…I’m not actually sure what his official description would be but let’s just say he made a very lucrative business out of predicting technologies just before they came into existence, Kurzweil once commented that it will actually get to a point in society where the virtual and real world merge. That people will stop considering them different and think of them as the same thing. He also predicts that the place where this overlap will begin to occur is in video games. What does that mean? What are the signs that our fantasies in video games are becoming real?

Sadly, the first real indicators of the two worlds merging are when a traumatic event in the virtual world affects the life of someone in reality. An article in the Boston Globe highlights the growing field of therapy for people who have lost their virtual lives. The doctor interviewed, Dr. Block, proposes that the therapy needed goes far beyond mere remedies for addiction. He suggests that much of the problem is that the person has trouble just finding someone who will take their loss seriously. The subject often won’t be able to find an outlet until they are able to talk with someone who understands the game itself and the magnitude of the loss within those boundaries. Take the EVE Online player in the article. That was a part of his identity. He spent years deriving self-worth and personal esteem from being one of the most powerful people in that game. Should he be ashamed of that? Should he not feel loss when his entire digital empire gets taken from him? We all get self-worth and esteem from goofy things. Hell, you’re reading one of mine. That’s just what people to do to make themselves feel better. Why should someone’s prized armor collection be of any less value just because it’s virtual rather than destroying their garden if both prizes took the same amount of time to accrue?

Another sign is that people are starting to believe their interactions with real people in the virtual world have value. They are having have real debates online, far beyond just chatting in the comments. Academics long ago realized MMORPG’s gave them insights into how people would behave in real world conditions, but now they’re holding conferences there as well. The most interesting thing in that article about running an academic conference in World of Warcraft is that the people conducted themselves as if they were at a real academic meeting. Certain people run the forum, insights are noted, and the entire exchange is recorded for analysis later. They were able to do something in the Virtual World that would’ve taken months of planning and huge expenses in the real one. And it doesn’t stop there, businesses have started training their employees and holding meetings in digital environments. Whether it’s having people show the appropriate reactions to an oil rig fire or holding private gatherings on secluded islands, companies have embraced virtual reality for the low costs and the value the experience still provides in application to the real world. As one manager notes, people still bond even though they’re meeting online.

But perhaps the greatest sign that the boundaries have begun to blur is the fact that the real world has begun to spill back into the virtual. A place that was once reserved for acting out our fantasies and creating sense of accomplishment has finally begun to reflect back. There are now video games about real world events. There’s the groundbreaking Super Columbine Massacre RPG that forces the player to experience an intense documentary-like game and uses actual writings from the two killers to recreate the event. Or the unflattering McDonald’s simulation that doesn’t just show you how to run a successful fast food joint, it forces you to realize that the only way these companies can make money is through corruption. Or Audiosurf, which takes the music in the real world and converts it into a virtual level for the player to navigate. The fact that we’re starting to take virtual reality seriously is exciting and somewhat frightening. The fact that virtual reality has begun to reflect back at reality is where the real shift begins to occur.

I had a really interesting chat with a friend of mine who researches on lab rats about virtual reality a while back. The guy literally kills rats by suffocating them, gauges their heart status, the efficacy of the chemical he’s injected them with, and does this for months on end. He’s testing a medication that would save people’s lives if they were having a heart attack and were able to take it in time. What’s ironic is that he gets offended by violence in video games. His complaint is that the violence is totally meaningless. You gun down hundreds of people, yet there’s no meaning to that death. No value given to all that destruction beyond a score or reward. When I pointed out that his occupation involved a pretty horrific amount of violence as well, he disagreed. To him, killing the rats had purpose and utility for a greater good, while in video games it all just seems kind of senseless. Issues of game violence aside, perhaps the best way to create meaning and purpose in video games is if the player provides them on their own. Perhaps by blurring the lines between the virtual and the real, we can go beyond just dragging our fantasies into reality. We can do more than just brag that our Level 70 Paladin runs their own guild. We can say that they did something important there as well.

by Bill Gibron

1 Sep 2008

In general, it will be known as the ‘Summer of the Bat’. Christopher Nolan brought the Caped Crusader back for another crime epic experience, and walked away with nearly a BILLION dollars worldwide as a result. At $500 million (and counting) The Dark Knight was clearly 2008’s big box office winner - and it was also the Superhero Season’s most critically acclaimed effort as well. Indeed, amidst all the Hulks and Hancocks, raging red demons and literal jet setting playboys, Hollywood stuck to the standard formulas - sort of. While there was the typical animated averageness, two clever cartoons pushed the boundaries of the artform. Names like Apatow and Argento strived to score audience appreciation, while the Wachowskis walked away with the award for most misunderstood movie of the year.

Of the 53 films SE&L sat through this summer – and we did miss a couple along the way (sorry American Teen, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, and The House Bunny) – finding 10 worthy of making the grade was actually fairly tough, especially this year. There were so many picks that practically begged to be mentioned. In general, the determination for inclusion in based on the ‘carry over’ syndrome. If a movie moved us, touched us, intrigued us, inspired us, entertained us, angered us, or surprised us in such a way that we ‘carried over’ that sentiment for days, sometimes weeks after seeing a film, it’s passed an important test.

A critic can view up to a dozen movies in a week, and differentiating between them all can sometimes be as simple (or better yet, simplistic) as a gut or kneejerk reaction. But when they remain in your mind, when you constantly find yourself replaying scenes and revisiting ideas that the storyline or characters inspired, it’s an omen that can’t be ignored. They function as mental place cards in a mind overflowing with performances, images, and words. So when SE&L began it’s basic backwards glancing, we remembered the experiences we had during these hot, humid days, and the ones still stationed in our brains got the call up.

For the 10 films selected here, more than a couple are going to cause an uproar. Populist opinion – something we tend to sidestep in favor of actual film analysis – has confirmed that our choices chaffs the average mainstream member of the audience in ways that demand unreasonable retribution. Granted, you may feel free to take umbrage with anything we champion or chide, but this is not some kind of last word consensus on creative spark or motion picture ingenuity. It’s just opinion, albeit one based on a perspective of decades, not mere years, and several thousand, not a couple dozen, film going experiences. You may not agree, and that’s fine. But to quote Monty Python, the automatic nay-saying of someone else’s point is not an argument.

In the meantime, here’s SE&L’s choices for the Best Films of the Summer of 2008:

#10 Mother of Tears
Fright fans have been waiting for this event for nearly three decades. After 1980’s Inferno introduced the concept of a continuing saga about the infamous Three Mothers, and the possibility of the ultimate horror trilogy, those who’ve followed Dario Argento’s career have wondered when he would finally deliver the last act of his terror triptych. Suspiria has long been considered a macabre masterpiece, the kind of unbridled moviemaking genius that ushered in copycats, great expectations and the possibility of even better things to come. The Italian auteur’s follow up was crucified, critics and audiences both startled by its dissimilarity to its source, as well as its purposeful sense of style over substance. Now comes Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, and again, Argento is defying convention to deliver another totally unique take on his previously forged black magic reality.

#9 Kung Fu Panda
If the Shaw Brothers had access to CGI and the post-modern voice talent, Kung Fu Panda  would have definitely been part of their stable of wuxia epics. Glorious to look at and exhilarating to experience, this is the best that such genre-defying efforts have to offer. Far surpassing the pleasant but paltry visuals presented by such stale 3D showcases as Shrek and Ice Age, this combination of anime, action, and ancient Chinese scrollwork is captivating from the opening dream sequence. We also get clever character design, a true depth of field, and a phenomenal attention to detail. Then directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson up the Asian ante, meticulously recreating the carefully choreographed fight scenes that make martial arts movies so addictive.

#8 The Pineapple Express
For some reason, the stoner fails to get the same cinematic respect as other substance abusing characters. The alcoholic and the heroin addict are usually wrapped in semi-seriousness, while the pot head gets demoted to pharmaceutical comic relief. Granted, it’s hard to take the personality type seriously when incessant giggling, non-stop gluttony, and a lack of world perspective follows their wake and bake activities. From Cheech and Chong to Harold and Kumar, the standard strategies apply - toke, smoke, and joke. But not in the latest entry from the Apatow factory. Pineapple Express wants to take the blunt into some uncharted cinematic territory. And thanks to some sensational performances, and an interesting perspective behind the camera, it more than succeeds.

#7 Tropic Thunder
Say what you will about Tropic Thunder - hilarious Hollywood satire or sorry excuse for politically incorrect potshots - but it’s hard to deny its insularity. Of all the contained within Tinsel Town takes such as The Player and The Stunt Man, this madcap movie really delivers on the feeding hand mastication. As with any in-joke, the humor increases as the source becomes more selective, the novelty lost on those left outside looking in. Still the movie mines enough outrageousness from its attacks on actor arrogance, studio stupidity, production snafus, and a few choice inappropriate targets. Even the moments that misfire have a satisfying self-referential quality - kind of like a satire of a slightly shoddy spoof.

#6 Wanted
Hollywood is notorious for repeating ideas. When something is successful, you can guarantee studio suits are desperate to find a way of copying it. With the release of Wanted, something even more unusual takes place. While it’s clear that this movie borrows liberally from the Wachowski’s action packed bullet time virtual reality revisionism, it also incorporates much of Fight Club‘s insignificant rebel in a crass corporate pond philosophizing. Together, the combination adds up to a strangely unique experience. On the one hand, you easily recognize the various references. On the other, Russian director Timur Bekmambetov uses the homage as a means of manufacturing his own incredible vision.

#5 Iron Man
Iron Man is fantastic, a sure fire blockbuster that will leave audiences breathless and fanboys wanting more. And if all that sounds like unhealthy hyperbole, this is the rare film that actually earns it. In an era where summer films tend to aim for opening weekend supremacy (and little else), this is an epic for the ages. Director Jon Favreau fills in the last missing element in his resume by creating a certified crowd pleaser, a F/X driven spectacle that mandates character count as much as CGI. Just deep enough to avoid superficiality, so ‘whiz bang wow’ that there’s no chance of boredom, two decades of motion picture allegiance to the Marvel/DC universes is rewarded with an epic that wears it’s intentions proudly.

#4 Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Ever wonder what it would be like if your favorite filmmaker had the creative freedom to realize his or her own inner artistic aims? Ever lament the fact that directors like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, or Darren Aronofsky are stuck working within a studio system that demands certain commercial sacrifices over an individual’s aesthetic desires? Well, welcome to the world of Guillermo Del Toro. Here’s a man brimming with imagination and invention, and yet no film has really allowed him the kind of collective carte blanche to fulfill his most outlandish visions…until now. Thanks to the universal acclaim of Pan’s Labyrinth, and a future helming The Hobbit, someone finally gave Del Toro a limitless paintbox. The brilliance that is Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, is the result.

#3 Wall-E
By its very definition, imagination is limitless. The only true restrictions to the notion exist in the connection to actual human thought. Clearly, whoever is hiring (or perhaps, cloning) the creative forces at Pixar have found a way to circumvent said biological boundary. In an artistic endeavor where there are no sure things, this astounding animation studio has that most unprecedented of reputations - they never make a mistake. Not only are their films fantastic examples of motion picture craftsmanship, but they keep getting better with each and every new offering. Take their latest, the special sci-fi allegory WALL*E. It a stunning achievement in computer generated imagery, and once again expands the company’s range in dealing with subject matter both speculative and wonderfully sly.

#2 Speed Racer
Candy colored dreams descend down physically impossible angles, shapes shifting across plains of apparent non-reality while simultaneously simulating real life. Cartoon icons come to life, reduced to clichéd contradictions in a classic tale of good vs. very, very evil. Family is the focus, but not to the detriment of all that effervescent eye candy, and modern technology never trumps the skills inherent in masterful moviemaking. This is what the Wachowski Brothers have created with their homage to the classic ‘60s anime series. Speed Racer is that kind of a thesaurus level triumph. One needs an extended vocabulary to work out the descriptions necessary to explain this amazing movie.

#1 The Dark Knight
Duality is the nature of man. We all have good and evil inside us. Which side we choose to embrace earmarks our very existence, putting us on a path toward redemption…or damnation. Christopher Nolan understands the very humanness of his characters. The split personality within all of us has become this filmmaker’s aesthetic playground. When he first revamped the Batman mythos for his 2005 blockbuster, fans were worried that future installments in the series would be more psychological than spectacle. Add to that the death of his choice for The Joker, and The Dark Knight seemed destined to succumb to ridiculous expectations. Instead, it instantly becomes one of the best films of 2008, if not the current reigning champion at the top.


**********

The Worst
And now, the bottom of the barrel, the cinematic scrapings that reek of lame scripts, poor direction, bad acting, ill-conceived conceptualizing, and all around motion picture mediocrity. While there are a few films missing from this list (like the latest shoddy spoof Disaster Movie…how prophetic), the ten titles here are representative of the filmic funk that soiled the Cineplex this season:

#10 Sex and the City: The Movie
A shrill celebration of materialism, sluttiness, and all around bad behavior. Feminists and confirmed ‘cougars’ should sue.

*****

#9 The Strangers
Two troubled lovers are terrorized by a trio of faceless killers. The lack of frights is only matched by lack of explanations or motives.

*****

#8 Meet Dave
Eddie Murphy plays a human sized starship (and its captain). A member of Mystery Science Theater 3000 wrote the script. Clearly, these comic world’s couldn’t collide.

*****

#7 Star Wars: The Clone Wars
George Lucas proves that he’s lost touch with everything that made his once formidable franchise famous. Even apologists had a hard time with this one.

*****

#6 Fly Me to the Moon 3D
Bugs stowaway on the historic Apollo mission. While the effects were interesting, the lack of any real entertainment value destroys the diversion.

*****

#5 Space Chimps
Another species, another trip into the cosmos. This time, simians battle an egomaniacal despot turning his citizens into statues via a fallen US satellite. Really.

*****

#4 The Mummy: Curse of the Dragon Emperor
This crime against popcorn entertainment committed one of the biggest cinematic sins ever - it wasted the talents of Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh.


*****

#3 Babylon A.D.
A movie so bad, everyone except its star disowned it. This failed future shock is so uninvolving, even the characters seem lost in a cloud of unbelievable dystopian boredom.


*****

#1 The Happening
M. Night Shaymalan actually believes that this is one of the scariest movies ever made. Sadly, his delusion is more frightening than anything in this pissed off plants hokum.


*****

#1The Love Guru
Mike Myers successfully killed his career with this horrendously unfunny comedy. It was so bad that even the planned protests couldn’t attract curiosity seekers.

 

 

 

by Lara Killian

1 Sep 2008

This will surely be the last time I mention Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling YA series, Twilight.* Until the publishers release a four volume set just in time for the holidays (hint, hint).

image

About two weeks ago, a coworker mentioned that her teenage daughter is obsessed with the series and had pre-ordered the final volume, Breaking Dawn from a well known online purveyor of books which shall remain nameless. I sighed in envy, not having pre-ordered, and then commiserated when I heard that after waiting two weeks past the release date, and checking in several times with the equally well known shipping company, the box finally arrived—empty.

Luckily the horror ended there. Another copy was sent overnight and feverishly consumed over a weekend. Coming in at a walloping 768 pages, it is a testament to Meyer’s storytelling ability that a teenager is able to sit down and get through such a tome. Of course, today’s reading teenagers have been well-trained by the magical Harry Potter.

I managed to borrow Breaking Dawn to read over the following weekend and can attest that Meyer tells a good tale. She consistently surprises me; I can never tell where the story is going next. I was very surprised (I’ve done well at keeping my head down since the 2 August release date, staying off the author’s home page and related online forums) at the turn the story takes in the final volume, and was only faintly discouraged by the continued development of the vampiric characters into X-men-like superheroes. Over the course of the series the characters become more and more fantastic (in the unrealistic sense) and while some escapism can be fun, I do miss the original Bella, with her klutzy moves, Edward with his frequent loss of self-control, and Alice with her girly love of satin, sequins and hair curlers.

That said, I’d read this series again – once that four volume set is available. I’m looking forward to seeing what Meyer does next – and yes, I’ve already read The Host.

*I make no promises about the movie release scheduled for November.

Do you have any thoughts about what the next YA series craze will be?

by Mike Schiller

31 Aug 2008

Quick—think of the last Spore-related article you read.  It could have been yesterday, it could have been last week, but think about it: What was it about?

EA's Spore

EA’s Spore

It makes me sad to even type this, but it’s my estimation that for something around 90% of you, the last Spore-related article you read was about penis monsters, mammary trolls and the like.  The fallout of releasing the Spore creature creator almost three months before the full game was released is that every sexually-challenged goofball out there who thought he or she was being absolutely hilarious (RoFL WoFLs!) decided to make a monster that looks like human sexual organs.  Some of the more enterprising souls released the results to YouTube.  In fact, the “Sporn” phenomenon has grown so quickly and placed in such a prominent position in the mainstream coverage of the game thus far as to have all but completely overshadowed the incredibly ambitious nature of the full-length game.

The mere idea of Spore has been making gamers, particularly PC gamers, drool for some years now, and it’s unfortunate that the pre-release press for the game is so focused on the juvenile.  Still, if Spore even approaches the mere idea of itself, the press post Sunday’s release should focus on the changing face of the simulation genre as a whole.  Spore is the one to watch this week, maybe the one to watch this year.

Square Enix's Infinite Undiscovery

Square Enix’s Infinite Undiscovery

Elsewhere, there’s a whole pile of releases for the Xbox 360 this week, including Infinite Undiscovery, Square Enix’s next venture into non-franchise role-playing.  Given the incredible response to The World Ends With You, Infinite Undiscovery has a lot to live up to.  Facebreaker looks like it could be good for a laugh or three, and hey—some people actually liked Vampire Rain, so maybe PS3 players have something of their own to look forward to.

So what are you picking up this week?  Scope out the release list, check out the Spore vid, and let us know in the comments!  Oh, and enjoy your Labor Day!

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